Quill pens, made from birds feathers, were used for writing from the 5th century. The first British patent for a metal pen was taken out in 1808 and, within forty years, Birmingham had become the centre of a whole new industry. The city had more pen factories than the rest of the world put together. The introduction of a UK-wide penny postal service in 1840 increased letter writing and many schools changed from using slates to pens and paper. By 1850, Birmingham was producing almost 500 million pens a year, with a predominantly female workforce, working anything between 52 and 57 hours a week, and employing child labour from as young as eight or nine!
Jean (John) Petit, a French Huguenot refugee, fled to England to escape religious persecution and set up shop as a metalworker in Birmingham around 1785. His grandson Joseph LetiÃ¨re Petit, born in Sheffield in 1827, was apprenticed as a toolmaker at Hinks, Wells & Co, one of the largest pen makers in Birmingham. During the 1850s, Joseph Petit formed his own company Ash, Petit & Co, based in Navigation Street. His agent in Austria was Carl Kuhn, who had begun producing steel pens and pen holders in Vienna in 1843. It was his son-in-law Charles Brandauer from Stuttgart who took over Ash, Petit & Co and started his own factory in 1862, with Joseph Petit in charge.
Within months of C Brandauer & Co being established in New John Street West, the new business was displaying its products at the 1862 Great Exhibition in London, which was visited by around six million people. With Joseph Petit’s experience and skills as a pen designer and toolmaker, the Company quickly built a reputation for high quality and innovation, with well over 400 different designs in all shapes and sizes in its 1890 catalogue. It exported widely, winning medals at many of the international exhibitions of the 1870s and ’80s, from Vienna, Berlin and Stuttgart to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and produced a special pen to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.
The business, previously a partnership, now became C Brandauer and Company Limited, the name under which it continues to trade. Members of the Petit and Brandauer families became directors and shareholders. The factory was enlarged, with a four-storey extension, doubling the frontage along New John Street West and employed at least 600 workers. Demand for Brandauer products increased with extensive advertising in the press, on trams, buses and the London underground and even the electrograph in Piccadilly. Electricity was eventually installed at the factory at a cost of £604, although steam power was still less expensive and was used when required.
Charles Brandauer had died in 1899 and, when Joseph Petit passed away in 1914, the business was being led by their sons. However, Britain was now at war and the Brandauers, who were regarded as ‘enemy aliens’, had their property confiscated. Although Frederick Brandauer had lived here for at least 30 years, he was interned in a camp on the Isle of Man and, in 1918, committed suicide rather than be repatriated to Germany. The Government had been persuaded to let the Company continue trading and, like other pen makers, it produced war materials such as cartridge clips for the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifles.
The Company was now wholly-owned by the Petit family. Although competition from other countries had increased, Birmingham pen manufacturers were still producing 1,440,000,000 pens per annum, with Brandauer exporting all over the World, as far afield as Africa, Australia, India and South America. Victorian production methods began to change, with electrically-powered roll-feed presses installed to automate several stages of pen manufacture, combining blanking, marking and piercing. Brandauer also began to diversify, producing light pressings for the rapidly expanding motor industry in the West Midlands, a crucial development that would provide the foundation for the Company’s future.
With much of the region’s motor industry turned over to aircraft manufacture, Brandauer’s pre-war links with the Lockheed Hydraulic Brake Company in Leamington Spa soon led to Air Ministry contracts. Although small-scale pen production continued, most of the factory was engaged in war work, producing parts for fighters, bombers and other aircraft, as well as for tanks, armoured cars and other products. Birmingham suffered very badly from air raids and it is said that local people would often shelter in the Company’s cellars in the belief that a factory with a German name would offer some protection!
Despite having proved its capability to produce a wide variety of precision presswork, there was reluctance to abandon the products upon which its worldwide reputation had been built. So, when the Festival of Britain exhibition came to Birmingham in 1951, the Brandauer display was of Victorian pens, rather than the parts being supplied for the rapidly expanding record player market. However, it was eventually forced to acknowledge that pen making was a largely redundant trade and, led by the irrepressible ‘Tony’ Edwards-Jones, looked for new opportunities in electronics and the development of other products of its own, such as crinkle washers and tiny instrument spanners.
Although pen making continued for a time in a satellite factory at Atherstone in Warwickshire, output finally ceased in Birmingham shortly before the Company’s centenary in February 1962. In its place a wide range of precision pressings were being made for customers including GKN, Joseph Lucas, International Computers and Tabulators Ltd., IBM, Texas Instruments and others. Record players containing Brandauer parts were being exported all over the world and components supplied to Hellerman Deutsch fitted in the new Concorde supersonic airliner and the Harrier vertical take-off fighter for the RAF. Meanwhile, around the factory, Victorian Newtown was being demolished for re-development.
Under the Chairmanship of Joseph LetiÃ¨re Petit’s great-grandson Adrien, the business had been restructured to create Brandauer Holdings Ltd, with a Family Board, and C Brandauer & Co Ltd as a wholly-owned subsidiary, with a Board that included non-family directors. He also shared Joseph’s talent for invention, devising a range of self-adhesive cable clips that have been in continuous production since 1972. Developments in technology continued to provide Brandauer with other new opportunities. However, just as a pen had been made to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the Company produced a special presentation set for HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Brandauer continued to seek new outlets for its expertise in precision engineering and ability to produce high quality components in very large numbers. The Company became the first in Britain to manufacture a standard integrated circuit frame, producing around 25 million a week for export to Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland and the USA, and also the largest user of beryllium copper strip in the UK. Floppy disk shutters and nose clips for protective face masks were produced in vast numbers, 2.5 billion of the latter having now been delivered. Brandauer even developed its own central processor unit board for computers but this was beyond its resources and never progressed past the experimental stage.
Production of hubs for computer floppy disks began in 1991 at a rate of 150 a minute, with a total of more than 546 million eventually being made. However, in a volatile economic climate, the workforce was down to just 63, the lowest it had ever been and a tenth of the size it was at the turn of the century. An extra production line for toner cartridge springs was set up in premises in nearby Brearley Street although later, when the product was redesigned, the factory was closed.
The start of the 21st century saw the Company leave its original 1862 factory and move into modern premises in Bridge Street West less than 200 metres away, providing scope for increased efficiency. The family business has gone from strength to strength, recognised by no less an authority than the European Organisation for Nuclear Research at CERN as “one of very few high-precision presswork specialists in Europe with the necessary skills and technical capability to produce components that meet our extremely demanding specifications. The Companyâ€™s contribution to the Large Hadron Collider demonstrates that small and medium-sized specialists such as Brandauer continue to offer world-class design and engineering services at the highest level.” Brandauer now supplies a wide range of industrial sectors from push-fit plumbing to surgical implants, from automotive and telecommunications components to white goods and hydrogen fuel cell technology. The Company is also a founder member of the MAN Group, a unique collaborative engineering network comprising 10 Midland companies.
The visit by HRH The Princess Royal on March 19th 2012 was a very special occasion for the Company’s employees and management and for its family owners. Charles Brandauer and Joseph Petit would be very proud indeed to see how their partnership has evolved into a truly world-class family business.